Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Day 59: Vietnam Visa Waiver (29/03/2011)

With his name on a sign above his kiosk, the officer manning the visa desk at the Vietnamese Consulate in Sihanoukville could have been a leading man from the 1950's.

With a square jaw and thick black hair brylcreemed into an immaculate parting, he had eyes like coals and exuded charisma that even the glass partition could not deflect. Sadly for him, for the moment he had to be satisfied with providing the fastest visa service in the world.

Everywhere else, acquiring the means of crossing the border at Chau Doc had a reputation for becoming entangled with beaurocracy and delay. Despite the full waiting room, our friend processed the visa application form, photo and 45 dollar fee in double quick time. The tuk tuk driver said he would wait as it would only take 20 minutes and we didn't believe him. In the end it was all over in less than 10, and that included completing the application form as well as waiting our turn to reach the counter.

Thank you nice visa man.

Celluloid immortality awaits.

Day 59: Boom Boom at Bamboo Island (29/03/2011)

We went snorkelling today for the second time on our travels, to the beautiful coral fringed Bamboo Island.

The last time at Koh Chang in Thailand, we pulled silly faces at the waves and blew raspberries at the swell from the second deck of the big boat that ferried us from island to island.

Today the good natured ocean tweeked our noses but no more as we rocked and bobbed in our tiny, leaky vessel.

Sadly, the happy comparisons begin to stumble. Our tropical paradise at Mushroom Point hostel on Otres Beach in Sihanoukville is on a bay of twelve islands. It suffers from the tension between sustainable tourism and commercial development. At Koh Chang the reefs that we snorkelled over were pristine and teeming with colourful life. Here some areas are dead or damaged and the normally abundant life is absent.

The causes include dubious fishing techniques. High voltage power cables are lowered into the waters, killing everything in the close vicinity. Dynamite is detonated with equally indiscriminate effects. Tourist boats crash into the reef. Anchors are secured on it, tearing living coral away from the surface after which it and much of the surrounding communities die back.

From a tourist's perspective, the effect is two fold. Large areas of unsightly white calcium residue scar the sea bed that used to be the home of the tiny coral animals who construct the reefs. After this the eco-system that supports the diversity of fish and plant life is disrupted and the life gradually disappears. The surviving corals in turn suffer as the fish that they depend on reduce in number.

From an ecological perspective, the effects are dramatic. A coral reef is often many thousands of years old and can take more than 50 years to begin regeneration after damage, even if healthy. Parasitic infection, rising sea temperatures and increasing acidity levels all add the the physical damage caused by careless fishing techniques and unsustainable tourism.

Between 1986 and 1991, 50% of the reefs in the Phillipines were destroyed.

Can Cambodia wake up to the potential that is on the verge of being lost?

Monday, 28 March 2011

Day 5: Unaccompanied Miners (02/02/2011)

 I heard that Bobby Brown died today.

I wasn't really ready for it but then again it was his prerogative.

The Australian torso with the cheesey socks moved out from our room yesterday, to be replaced by Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn. Sadly, Penelope Cruz was not in tow, failing which we would have had a full house for the snowbound sequel to the movie, Sahara.

They were clearly travelling under assumed names and had gone to considerable lengths to protect their identities. They made the implausible claim that they were boilermakers from the mines in Perth W.A. and that they spent weeks underground at a time. The Hollywood tans gave the game away, as well as the hordes of screaming fans outside the hostel. I took a call for Matthew on the hostel phone from some guy calling himself Mr.Spielberg. He was very rude so I told him Matthew didn't ever want to speak to him and hung up.

They, like us, were on the first days of a round the world trip. The only difference was that they were throwing themselves down double black runs on a week's experience which was too rich for our blood. It was the only thing that they could do to escape the paparazzi who swarmed after them on the slopes.

We skied Iwatake today, no.3 of the seven Hakuba resorts.It had nice runs and great ramen in the mountain restaurants.

The comic potential for today was limited.

It turns out that reports of Bobby Brown's death had been greatly exaggerated after all.

It was only his career.

Day 58: The Ice Man Cometh (28/03/2011)

About 7am each day the streets of city echo to the sound of sawing and hacking.

Before the heat has risen, the ice patrol begins.

Great blocks of tantalisingly cool, clear crystal appear on forecourts and in garage doorways. Men attack them with saws and chisels, creating fissures and exploiting fault lines. Little by little the huge boulders are reduced into more manageable sizes. A fleet of flat bed tuk tuks come and go, collecting and delivering blocks the size of concrete lintels, wrapped in muslin to insulate them against the increasing temperature. At 7am, in the late dawn, the air is a pleasant 17 degrees. Half an hour later, when the shadows are receeding, it is torpor inducing 30 degrees.

The iceman has to work quickly as his stock perishes faster than any other. His tuk tuk careers along the bouncy tracks to the beach front bars, clattering his load but never losing it, and weaves through the oncoming morning traffic to reach the city restaurants. His rounds are finished by 8am and the distribution finished, the utilisation begins.

Ice for ten thousand fruit shakes. Ice for ad hoc refridgeration in a town of sporadic power supplies. Ice for the endless road side cooler boxes preserving consumables through the long, hot day.

The blocks do not last long. Sub divided between shops and restaurants by co-operative buying, they are fed down the food chain to bicycle vendors and mobile stalls until the whole town is supplied with the only antidote to the heat.

Street grinders break it up. Hand turned chippers and crushers finish the job until finally the heat triumphs and the ice returns to water.

At night, the freezer vats are filled for the whole process to begin again the following day.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Day 57: The Night Bus to Snookyville (26/03/2011)

"The night bus very good!" says the man behind the counter.
"How much for ticket?" I ask in my bizarre pigeon-english that is also responsible repeating myself to uncomprehending foreigners, only much more loudly than before, and muttering made up words for 'sorry' at locals under my breath when I crush their toes.
"You sleep always" he replies cheerfully, the outgoing words dodging the incoming Tom Yam that he is spooning into his mouth.
"You lie like a cheap rug" is what I would have said, if only I had been born with the gift of foresight.
After several minutes of failed negotiations, I finally concluded that Vikram Buntham Transport Co. had a strict no haggling policy with tourists and 18 dollars was 18 dollars, not a cent less. Locals do pay significantly less. And probably rightly so, if for a moment, you step outside the local price bubble that causes otherwise pleasant Americans to spend the heat of the day beating a 6 year old bracelet girl down to 90 cents, from the three for a dollar routine.
It all started so promisingly. Consider the modular components for the perfect flat pack night bus trip.
-       A leisurely dinner – check.
-       Arrive at the bus station in good time – check.
-       Secure best possible bed-seat – check.
-       Get out of Siem Reap without collision, arbitrary arrest or detention – check.
Ten hours to Sihanoukville and what can go wrong? Perhaps a minor electrical fault, or a small on board fire. Surely we could cope with that? This is the 21st century and we are not going far from civilisation.
Ask Apollo 13.
Fifty minutes into the journey the air conditioning coughed. Five more and it spluttered and released its last ragged breath of cool air. When the hour was up, plastic fittings were melting and tempers were fraying. Anthropologists say we are only three square meals from anarchy. Tonight it was one broken heat exchanger.
I enquired if a window could be opened. Rama, our host went one better and slung open all the coach doors. On the plus side, the heat evaporated and a merciful gale of night air blasted through the cabin. With it came waves of jasmine and wood smoke. On the minus, there was nothing between a careless step and tarmac oblivion. 
A short moment later a contingent of Russians from the rear, launched a pre-emptive counter strike."Close the doors" they said in menacing Slavic tones. "The wind is ruining our hair".
Rama was caught between opposing fire but manfully held his ground. The doors were staying open.
Yevgeni bitch-slapped him to the ground and wrenched the doors shut manually.
Philomena, from a row behind us was not taking this challenge to empire lying down, but only if you discount the fact that she was actually lying down at the time, this being an overnight sleeper service. Straight to the front she marched.
She arched a patrician eyebrow at the now cowering Rama, dazed him with a hay-maker from the left and delivered the knockout blow with a pile-driving right before firing a string of aristocratic epithets at his motionless form.
Yevgeni lost his nerve in the face of this onslaught and buckled without further resistance. The doors opened and the swirling, hair curling vortex returned.
Rama was nowhere to be seen when the bus arrived at Phnom Penh in the early hours of the morning and it was probably for his own safety. The burly Khmer driver curtly advised that the bus was broken and we must disembark. Meekly, Philomena, Yevgeni and the rest of the passengers complied.
Panic ensued when there was talk of the replacement bus departing before luggage had been retrieved. Scrambling bodies tugged and pulled at the jammed hold. Zippers split, canvas tore and grown men cried like boys before all the bags were out. In the end the replacement Sihanoukville bus didn't leave for another 40 minutes while the relief driver chatted with this friends and enjoyed a 15 course road side taster menu.
At 5.30am we were disgorged into the bright Snookyville dawn, confused and disoriented by sleep deprivation and still with a battle to wage against the tuk tuk cartel at the bus station.
"You sleep always" he said.
Yeah, right!!

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Day 57: Mushroom Point Sihanoukville (27/03/2011)

It is hard not to experience life as a series of comparisons.

Everything always seems relative to something else, sometimes better and sometimes worse.

It is half the fun but it has its drawbacks.

Sometimes though, it just doesn't matter and that's the moment to strive for.

For the last couple of days we have stayed at Mushroom Point in Sihanoukville. It is 8km south of town on the brilliantly white Otres Beach, fringed with palms and overlooking a bay of islands. Fishing boats sway on the light swell and fish flit in the shallows. Mans and Irena have built a beautiful collection of circular, reed roofed, lime plaster huts around a patch of lush grass dotted with rough cut stepping stone pathways and banana trees. The space is dominated by a subtle mushroom motif in the sculpture, signs, menu and even the shape of the buildings.

An intoxicating fusion of world music floats in the air and the sea breeze cools the tiled communal area which is well equipped with power points, hammocks, floor pillows, good coffee and the most refreshing fruit shakes money can buy.

There may be a thousand places like this, up and down the Cambodian coast but right here, right now, this is so perfectly perfect, I would not change a thing.

Does Mushroom Point defy comparisons?

Probably not - but writing this now is the closest I can come to bottling this feeling.

And I wish I could share a glass of it with all of you.

Day 4: Skiing at Hakuba Cortina (01/02/2011)

Today we made it on time to Cortina. This is Hakuba's Holy Grail for snow boarders with few easy pistes and steep back country runs, dropping through the trees, into the resort from three sides. We all did lots of runs with plenty of powder and indecipherable piste maps that were as likely to lead you to your death as deliver you safely to the vin-chaude.

And whilst on the subject of death, the boys woke a sleeping bear by boarding over his head. Waking bears is not an activity to be undertaken, armed only with a 4 foot piece of fibreglass, particularly by whacking them over the head with it while they are trying to get some kip. You need a big gun to shoot it with when it starts to chase you. Its a job for soldiers, lumberjacks or construction workers.

The whole story is a little vague. There was some chasing and some running away. Someone may have cried like a big girl. Maybe the bear wasn't so tough after all. Fortunately the only shooting was of the 35mm variety. The hard evidence, I hear you cry? A blurry picture that could be a bear.

Or a pinemartin. Its just so hard to be sure.

Day 3: Skiing at Hakuba 47 (31/01/2011)

We slept well on our first night in Japan.

Here's a hint. Ever slept in a room with a snorer, who you are not in a relationship with, and laid awake in the early hours cursing every breath they take?

When they are asleep, tie a piece of string to their big toe and yank it everytime the racket starts. It works every time and over any distance within reason. But choose your victim carefully. Some people get a bit shirty about their feet.

Better than throwing peanuts at them in the darkness.

We surfaced early and set off to rendevous with  Dirk, Victoria, Francis, Shema, Paul and Dale at the Hakuba ski slopes. Somehow we were four hours late. Ski hire took forever. Ken Wong should have stuck to hot wok delights and left driving the loop bus to someone who knew the way.

The lesson for the day is that you have to be pretty determined to get to your destination by travelling in the wrong direction.

When we did arrive, we spent the afternoon painfully searching for lost form. Expending giga-watts of thigh energy as a desperate substitue for technique, we melted the local glacier.

The Hakuba Backpackers hostel did a decent range of cheap food and beers and after eating we crashed for the night.


A note to the wise. Travel budget is a friend of yours. Treat him nicely and don't start a round the world year of travel with a week skiing in the world's most expensive country. A week of this and poor budget will never get over it. Three days and he already looks pretty ashen.

Day 55: Fish Food (24/03/2011)

Croaked, deceased, passed away, pushing up daisies, fish food.

Take your pick but its been a difficult one.

Double moped death came knocking today but I think there was an misunderstanding. Death mark one arrived to collect. When Death mark two jumped the queue there were some words exchanged and then some shoving. Somebody's new scythe got scratched. In the confusion they seemed to forget about  me.                                                       .

I was crossing the road to go to the bank, although moped death can strike at any time. The pavement (which becomes an extra lane at rush hour), petrol station forecourts (where mopeds scream between the pumps as a short cut), the bath (don't ask me how but enough people bathe in the street to make anything possible). All are equally likely. Mopeds come at you from all directions and always simultaneously. One day the universe will end in a cataclysmic moped crash and God will be revealed to his faithful as a 25cc Honda Dream attended by a celestial host of divine tuk tuks.

Crossing roads here is like Asteriod Evasion on Atari. Nothing ever stops for you. Ever. It just keeps on coming and the best you can hope for is that they alter course to avoid a direct hit. Except when they haven't seen you. Talking on your mobile phone? View obscured by wearing sunglasses at night? Five people and a fridge on your moped and you need to look behind you to show your wife an amusing photo message of a funny looking dog riding a Harley? Oh dear.

As the 4x4 bore down on me, I held my nerve and was spared by a last minute change of direction. Sadly, the two mopeds driving precisely one micron behind the truck were busy chatting and were only alerted to my iminent death by ........ my imminent death!

I reacted quicker than the human eye. My trousers fell down (it happens alot). I waved  my arms. I yelled something sharing components of 'Yrunggg' and 'pleasesparemyworthlesslife'. They looked up in unison and their expression of horror was only marginally less impressive than mine. There were two of them so cumulatively it might even have been better. They swerved left and right. My trousers fell down again. Handle bars brushed me front and back. Were it not for the 3lbs I have lost in the last 54 arduous days of travel, I would have been a goner, smeared on the tarmac of fate like an over ripe tomato.

I composed myself, pulled up my trousers and went about the business of finding a stiff drink.

Instead I was eaten alive.

Apparently indifferent to my miraculous escape, Clare talked me into what is euphemistically called a Fish Massage. You pay 3 dollars to a lad with a suspiciously over stuffed wallet and then put your feet into his road side fish tank, while he sets fire to himself and dives though a flaming, knife rimmed hoop before doing back flips. The little fish nibble at the dead skin on your feet. It tickles unbearably.Then they net the fish into the deep fat fryer for diners waiting for whitebait at the restaurant next door.

And you think I am joking.....

Friday, 25 March 2011

Day 56: Three for a Dollar (25/03/2011)

Bracelets, bottles of water, postcards.

Everything in Cambodia is three for a dollar to tourists. There are two parallel pricing structures operating. One for locals and one for tourists. A shady third way exists for locals who have done well and expats who have been here for long enough to know the ropes. The official advice is not to buy from the children who flock to your table and tug at your sleeves in the street. They are beautiful and extremely proficient negotiators but are run by gang masters and are denied the free state education that all children can attend to the age of 14, by the daily routine that they are bound to.

Some speak English better than children in the UK at the same age. All know every technique to make the sale. They are quick with the display of their wares to catch your attention, engaging in conversation, knowledgable about every country a tourist might come from and proficient in that language to the extent it is needed for the deal.

Finally, there is the pause while they look at their feet in disappointment.

It may or may not be a ploy but that is the hardest thing to say no to.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Day 46: Bangkok Milton (15/03/2011)

Paradise Lost.

At least it must have been for the Thai Kings whose grasp on power slipped when a thousand years of absolute monarchy gave way to military rule between 1932 to 1973. You wouldn't want to be the one who dropped the ball. Perhaps that is why Thailand was the only nation in the region to avoid western conquest, sorry colonisation. 

The show really got on the road following the foundation of the kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1351. By the 16th century the Thai's had superceded the Khmer Empire of neighbouring Cambodia, which had been the regional power since the Angkor period in the 9th century. The arrival of western powers and changes in trade routes all contributed to the decline of the Thai kingdom.

More importantly, we booked into Lub D hostel on Silom Street that The Guardian newspaper says is one of the world's best. At 5 pounds per night it was perfect. Usually, cheap means prison camp and luxury means debtor's jail. Imagine car park chique with polished concrete walls and exposed cable trunking.

Bangkok, like everywhere in this neck of the woods, is a city of wild contradictions. High rise and shanty, limousine and tuk tuk, flushing toilets and open sewers. Central to it all is the great Chao Phraya river that runs through it. In a bulging city of 7 million with facilities for half that, the river remains essential to transport and commerce, which is where the fun starts.

It costs 3 baht (6 pence) to cross the river on a water taxi that crabs its way between the traffic, easing through gaps and holding in the current when the way is blocked.The crossing can take 30 seconds or 10 minutes depending on the skipper's religious persuasion. Muslims make cautious ferryboat captains. Buddhists laugh in the face of a watery grave and Hindus? Well, its all you can do to stop them ramming everything in sight. They know they are coming back in the next life.

Tiny tugs strain to haul huge barges. Small Thong Sala boats with colourful, lance like prows dart amongst it all, propellers throwing spray high into the air and whirring menacingly as they lift from the water in the swell.

Amongst the most polluted cities in the world, the river is curiously alive with fish. Throw bread into the water and you get your own free chemistry experiment. The water boils with writhing bodies. Clearly the Thais have something against river fish. Anywhere else such a plentiful source of protein would be exploited to exhaustion by 7 million hungry mouths.

The Grand Palace (Wat Pra Kaew) on one side of the river is an opulent display of golden towers and ornate fixtures. It is the official residence of King Bhumidol Adulyadej, who came to the throne in 1946 and is the longest serving head of state in the world.Across the river is the Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun) from whose dizzying heights the true size of Bangkok is apparent.

Generally a peaceful bunch as individuals, loss of face is important to Thai people. One man selling whistles at Arun, beat seven bells out of another over some some small infraction that escalated. Lots of sharp marble corners didn't do either of them any favours and there was blood on the walls. When it was over, they licked their wounds and got back to business. No hard feelings then.

By 6pm the storm clouds were gathering and by 7pm four shabby sorts on horseback, waving a selection of gardening utensils, rode past the hostel. Everyone dived for cover as a zillion giga-watts crashed down on Silom Street and the rolling thunder made my trousers fall down.

Day 54: The Mumblings of a Cloth Eared Knit Wit (24/03/2011)

It seems like the Google Key Word wheeze worked rather well.

A massive 30 people were fooled into my cunning web of deceit.

Now all I require my mindless drones to do is send non sequential, used bank notes in a brown envelope to the man next door to Rosy Guest House who is shouting incomprehensibly at the geckos. Mind you, if one had fallen on my head during dinner, I would probably feel the same. He looks a bit like Ken Watanabe.

Today we had a truly wonderful day. Possibly a top 5 day ever! We hired two bikes from the guest house and headed into the city traffic. Foolhardy I hear you say? But no, because we had a plan that came off famously. Into the haze we trundled and before long we completed a 25km loop of the temple site, pausing regularly in the monstrous heat to guzzle litres of water. We saw all the temples we needed to yesterday. Today was about a leisurely perambulation, if you can do that on a bike. I thought you should at least have a pram to do it properly.

Oh no, he's coming this way and he's waving something.......Ken, just leave it mate. Its not worth it.

The bikes were great. Chinese imports in 1968 with those high Easy Rider handle bars, a low slung top tube and a chain mechanism under a moulded cover to keep that nasty oil off your oriental flannels. We felt like we were on Grifters. A sprung seat and some generous padding finished the deal. Two dollars a day seemed a steal.

Once we mastered the unexpected wobble, my video camera problem went into its chronic phase. Clare riding past some elephants. Clare riding past some carvings. Clare riding over a rickety wooden bridge. Clare riding the chariot of Shiva across the sky. I made the last one up. Nineteen hours of tape later, not even a peep of complaint from her. Clare that is, not Shiva. I think she secretly likes it. Perhaps Clare bunny hopping the Grifter down the main staircase of the God King's Temple was a shot too far but it was excellent footage, at least until the tourist police intervened and bundled her into a waiting van. Which reminds me, I really ought to go the police station at some stage this evening. I hear Cambodian jails are have taken a turn for the worse since privatisation. You don't even get cable, especially if you are a political prisoner. Well, you do. Just not that type of cable.

I digress. Ken's back and its not looking pretty. It was okay while he was just shouting but then he turned nasty and started singing. Smiley, the guest house manager currently has him in a Cambodian thumb squeeze.

Excruciating apparently.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Day 53: Angkor Wat (23/03/2011)

Angkor Wat is a world famous temple complex just outside the city of Siem Reap on the north shore of Cambodia's largest fresh water lake, Tonle Sap.

I tell you this, not because you will be interested in the slightest but in the craven hope that using Google Key Words will help swell my currently modest page review rate. That, and a tiny bit of exaggeration as what self respecting self promotion tells the whole truth?

Which is very good fortune, as today an amazing tale dropped on my plate like a big fat fish.

We were playing pool on the only slightly lop-sided table at Rosy Guest House, East River Road, Siem Reap, Cambodia (Tel : 0855 (0) 17814011).

It was an inauspicious performance and of little note other than that the game attracted the attention of a pleasant Cambodian man called Napoleon* , who gave us helpful hints on cue technique. Amazingly, he was a direct descendant of Suryavarman II, the God King responsible for the construction of the wonder that is the Angkor Wat Temple Complex.

He explained that, due to his lineage, he was unaccustomed to carrying money, and being temporarily separated from his retinue, found himself embarrassingly short of cash. He had, thank Vishnu, been able to commandeer a vehicle from one of his subjects and was at our disposal. Should we be in need of a guided tour, he was happy to share with us a further good fortune, namely the presence in his entourage of the descendant of the Chief Architect, Michael Angelo* who was intimately acquainted with the intricacies of the massive site.

Unable to believe our luck, we agreed on the spot and the following morning set off in the royal tuk tuk with Napoleon and Michael Angelo.

The complex is huge. Angkor Wat was a temple capital housing a population of 60,000, covering nine square kilometres and founded in 1177 by Suryvaraman II. Sacked by the Vietnamese Chams in 1181, it prompted the construction of Angkor Thom just to the north by a successor Jayavarman VII on an even grander scale, the population peaking at over 1 million people. At this point the Khmer Empire hosted the largest city on earth and what still remains the largest religious building ever created.

Climbing the steep steps to the Bayon Temple, I was disconcerted to trip on an uneven slab and fall headlong into a previously undiscovered chamber where, while I was dusting myself off, I discovered the undisturbed funerary urn of Jayavarman II, which was very nice.

Later in the morning whilst enthralled by the architectural splendour of the Baphuon Temple, lightning struck for a second time. Whilst surveying the bas-relief carvings depicting the Hindu legend of the Churning of the Sea of Milk in which Gods and Demons co-operate to create the Elixir of Immortality, I accidentally deciphered the lost meaning of the carvings, solving a mystery that has perplexed scholars for over a thousand years, which was also very nice.

Just before lunch we wondered at the 39 towers of Ta Prohn. A scene from the famous Tomb Raider motion picture starring Angelina Jolie and John Voight, the towers are engaged in the muscular embrace of Banyan trees, themselves over 400 years old. To our delight Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had returned to the location for research into a third installment of the franchise and invited us to lunch with them at their suite at the Siem Reap Intercontinental Hotel.

Fortunately, in the meantime, Napoleon had found the members of his missing retinue and we were gratified to accompany him as he processed back to Siem Reap. After banqueting into the early hours and being presented with the Cambodian Medal of Honour in recognition of my contributions to archaeology, we retired to bed at Rosy Guest House, accompanied to our slumbers by the royal orchestra that played a medley of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Did I say a big fat fish?

Perhaps I meant a big fat lie.

* The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Day 52: Cosmic Tuk Tuk (21/03/2011)

Tim Tam.

To most, merely a poor Australian conterfeit of the noble chocolate Penguin biscuit.

As of today it is a new alloy, fused in the white heat of Phnom Penh traffic madness.

Tam approached us outside the National Museum, in that charming and conversational style used by the best salesmen. Unassuming and with no hard sell, we chatted about home and Manchester United and the beauty of the Cambodian capital. Before long we were hooked and he reeled us in expertly, despite our polite protestations.

Out gunned and out manoeuvred by a slick operator, we were in his Tuk Tuk, not really knowing how we got there, and barrelling along the river road in a maelstrom of traffic. Dodging oncoming mopeds and swerving to avoid desperate pedestrians, we hurtled headlong through the rush hour, reaching speeds of over 8 miles per hour. When the white knuckle ride was over, we had bus tickets to Angkor Wat, his brother's contact details in Siem Reap and an annual subscription to Tuk Tuk Weekly. What a lovely young man.

For the rest of the day we first wandered around the Royal Palace and then the cool halls of the National Museum, gazing intently at enigmatic limestone faces from the 9th century Angkor period, when the Khmer civilisation revolved around a God King ruling a city of over one million people, devoted to Hindu deities.

Angkor doctrine teaches that Brahma created us from a lotus flower whilst standing on the back of a serpent in the cosmic sea of eternity. Vishnu sustains all existance and one day Shiva will destroy us.

That is unless Tam meets her first and charms her into his Tuk Tuk.

Then our destruction will be the last thing on her mind.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Day 51: Phnom Penh (Sunday 20/03/2011)

After a 'French Breakfast' in the Cafe Laurent, we walked the 30m back to the hotel and waited for the tuk tuk to arrive and take us to the bus terminal. Nobody seems to expect you to make your own way anywhere. Maybe it is all part of the famous Thai generosity of spirit or possibly just to ensure that as many paying customers turn up.

The river that was silent last night had now become a major thoroughfare for motorboats, fishing boats, ferries and barges of all sizes. As we discovered later in the day, there are no streams in this part of South East Asia, just impossibly wide emerald green rivers that must have been a complete bar to all but the most determined before the era of bridge building.

The bus terminal in Kong Koh Krong was functional rather than beautiful, much like the rest of the town that seems to have thrived in a utilitarian fashion on the influx of cross border gamblers arriving from Thailand where the past time is banned. The bus left on time taking people to Sihanoukville on the south coast and the capital Phnom Penh. The large hole in the windscreen had been patched with sealant but the cracks crazed the glass for several feet around. No-one else seemed to mind so neither did we.

We quickly began to climb into the Cardomom Mountains, home to rain forest, leopards and land mines. The forest appeared quickly and the rain followed shortly afterwards. The windscreen resisted the combined efforts of the weather and the bumpy roads that bottomed the suspension every few hundred metres. The road was lined at regular intervals with unambiguous triangular signs in Khmer, the language of Cambodia, warning all concerned not to venture off the highway for fear of land mines. As soon as we crossed the border, the tragic legacy of the three years, seven months and twenty days of Pol Pot's regime became apparent. There are many men, too young to have been injured in the fighting, missing one or both legs, some on crutches and others in wheel chairs.

We passed the summit and descended into the lowlands, crossing more rivers and entering a low geared agriculural area. Rice paddies dotted the savanah with patches of vibrant greenery and animals wandered freely, often on the road. India's respect for the cow is not present here and but for the damage it would have done to the bus, the road would be littered with carcasses. White Oxen and black Water Buffalo grazed and pigs found relief from the heat in mud holes by the road side.

The bus stopped at Sre Ambel bridge for a comfort break. A small community of restaurants and kiosks has grown up by the bridge to supply the traffic but beyond this the area is in decline. The wide river showed no signs of commerce and two sunken vessels blocked the inshore waters on both sides of the channel. Shortly afterwards those destined for Sihanoukville disembarked for another bus waiting at the roadside and we pressed on to National Highway 48 to the Phnom Penh.The land dried gradually and crops required more man made irrigation. Rice is the staple but maize also grows. Cambodia is a moist and fertile land but the forced conversion to an exclusively agrarian economy under the Khmer Rouge between 1972 to 1975 acheived the opposite effect. Planting came to a standstill as up to one third of the population were murdered and famine followed close behind. Only when Vietnamese forces expelled the Khmer Rouge did the long road to recovery begin. The KR started as a pro monarchist insurgency and ended as an ideologically perverted Moaist personality cult. Their true credentials were displayed by the gratuitous and undocumented mine laying in large swathes of the south and west of the country when no purpose was to be served except causing further hardship to the people they claimed to represent. Members of the KR hierarchy remain in government. War crimes are alleged but  the pace of prosecution is painfully slow and unlikely to achieve any significant results.

Phnom Penh is a city of 1.3 million people. The road leading to it gradually changes from a ribbon development of shanty towns to smart modern multi storey buildings. On the outskirts we passed the head-quarters and training academies for the Royal Police, Army and Air Force. The monarchy was discredited by its involvement with the disaster of the early 1970's but the new incumbent, King Sihamoni has done much to rehabilitate the institution. Despite this the country remains a one party state under the control of the Cambodian People's Party who appear to have an office in every street.

As the city neared the traffic became denser. On two lane highways, four lane overtaking became more and more common. Might is right in these situations and the poor moped was unceremoniously dumped off the tarmac and onto the dirt on every occassion. Our bus driver was one of the worst offemders but even he hd to give way to oncoming lorries who ruled the road, brutally if necessary. At first I winced as we over took into a blind corner. I quickly learned not to look other than to film a short demonstration of the chaos, to the amusement of the driver.

After five and a half hours we arrived in the teeming metropolis. We were greeted by the usual crowd of hawkers and tuk tuk drivers, but having a hostel booking and a reasonably clear idea of how to get there, we marched into the fading light. The city has sprawled to the edge of the Tonle Sap River, but no further. There is a heavy French influence but an identity distinct from Thailand. The city roads are hazardous to pedestrians. There are crossings, often manned by a police officer but the stream of traffic will never give way. The only way is to take the leap of faith and step into the moving traffic whilst making yourself as visible as possible. The mopeds divert their path by the slightest degree and pass within an inch or two of you. As long as you make no sudden movements, it all works somehow. We quickly learnt to look for and seize any opportunity. A car reversing into the road, a dignitary crossing with an escort or even the traffic chaos following a minor altercation all produced a sufficient break in the flow to get across. What nothing prepares you for is the inexplicable danger presented by vehicles and particulary mopeds driving at speed on the wrong side of the road and into the path of the oncoming traffic. Very quickly two lanes become four and eventually the whole lane discipline breaks down. Everyone takes it in good humour and noone seems to die.

Dumping the bags we headed straight out for Khmer food. Banana Flower salad and Amok curry made instant converts of us. Walking home, the temples and palaces we would see tomorrow were sillouetted against the last rays of light from the dying day. Exhausted  by the heat, we watched news of Libyan air strikes with a growing sense of deja vu before falling asleep under a ceiling fan that threatended to come off at any moment.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Day 49: Snorkelling at Koh Chang Island ( Fri 18/03/2011)

Yesterday we booked a full day boat trip including two meals and 4 snorkelling locations for 500baht per person (or 10 pounds). I thought it would be a bit disappointing as the skies were cloudy and there was some rain in the air.

Aittipol Tours run at least 4 big boats from the pier near Cliff Cottages, each with capcity for 100 or more people. They look a bit rustic but underneath the flaking paint and rusty fittings is a slick operation. Wisely, we took the top deck as although there was some nausea inducing roll out at sea, it was less crowded.

We motored for one and a half hours to the furthest point at Koh Thanglong island, donned flippers, mask and snorkel and jumped in. It is a small rocky outcrop in a larger bay and on the surface, nothing spectacular. Beneath the waves it was a different world. A coral forest dropped to a white sandy shelf at 15m and the sea was teeming with many, many different species of colourful fish. This was what the Go Pro underwater camera was born for.

Clare ventured into the water with a camouflaged life preserver although quite why she needed to avoid being seen was beyond me. I think someone had a cheap deal on Thai military surplus. We bobbed around on the swell, marvelling at the cartoon fish. They advertise Dory and Nemo and it sounds trite on dry land. Under the water it is genuinely magical. I dived down to the bottom and exchanged waves with the scuba divers and then surfaced through their bubbles. The silver flash of a large four foot predator shot across the reef and into the shoal. Colourful fish exploded in all directions. One unlucky fish disaapeared and the rest then resumed their aimless meandering for our pleasure.

The horn went and we reboarded after an hour in the water that seemed like half that. The crew entertained us with magic tricks and insane diving antics off the roof of the boat before we moved on to Koh Yak, Koh Lan and finally Koh Wai, billed as the highlight of the tour. We snorkelled in the shallows over impossibly white sand that reflected the sunshine, now that the weather had improved. Anemones and sea-cucumbers littered the bottom. Clare discarded the life jacket and became much more proficient in the water in a matter of minutes. I dived from the roof of the boat, the first time stinging my calves as they slapped onto the water. The second time I lost my nerve and went in feet first, only to propel a litre of sea water up my nose, causing squeaky ear for the rest of the day.

Sadly one of the reefs had recently been damaged by careless boat handling. A fresh white scar two feet wide and ten high disfigured the face of the reef but Aittipol seemed careful and maintained a cautious distance. We motored home after a barbeque and fruit and were home at 5.30pm after setting off at 9am.

It was only later that my failure to reapply factor 50 started to demand attention. By degrees my back and shoulders progressed from pink to red. I thought nothing of it until the next day when the straps of a 20kg ruck sack could not find a comfortable spot to rest. It smarted just a little.

After raisin pancakes on the pier, we wound home across the headland and collapsed into the cliff cottage bar for food and drink before retiring gratefully to our comfortable bed and well earned rest.

Day 50: Welcome to Cambodia (19/03/2011)

We were sorry to leave Thailand. It was cheap and hot and they had pretty temples.

Now we are in Cambodia, not much has changed but it is less developped.

We didn't have to travel far but it was a long journey. A crazy taxi from Cliff Cottages on Koh Chang island to the  mainland ferry. A hard bargained for minibus to Trat town down the coast. A further mad mini bus to the border with Cambodia driven by an old guy with a nasty case of acid reflux and only a loose grasp of which side of the road he should be driving on. Exit Thai territory followed by a strange walk across no-man's land (they squabble from time to time....with guns and everything) and then entry to Cambodia which of course is when the problems started.

The guide books warn against all kinds of ingenious scams and we did at least try to be on our guard but the hardest to avoid are the ones that you see happening right in front of your eyes. In the end it probably only cost us an extra 4 pounds but still....

It all revolves around pretend doctors and health certificates and border stamps and men who you think are officials but aren't really and a series of bogus fees that alone are too small to kick up a fuss about but soon add up especially when there are two of you....and of course being British and a bit afraid to complain, other than under your breath.

But we got the visa and a nice piece of yellow paper warning about H1N1, and lots of lines from other would be scammers that we did  manage to avoid. I would settle for a no score draw this time. And of course, I am much more likely to spot the next scam long before it happens......aren't I?

We got a taxi from the border to Krong Koh, 5 miles into Cambodia. Lee, our driver, spilled the beans on the way about his introduction commission for every hotel in town, tours, bus and train tickets and all sorts of other things. It is probably no different to the UK and he did say he had a family to feed - and we did stay at the hotel he recommended and book bus tickets from his friend.....Hmmm!

Cambodia has its own currency but everything is done in prices set on the US dollar. There are 25 trillion Riels to the dollar and nobody wants to buy the wheel-barrows to cart the stuff around...but they still give the change for dollar purchases in Riels so they are obviously trying to get rid of a back log accumulated somewhere along the line.

Wifi is a blessing and our hotel (yes a hotel - and a very fine one on the Kah Bpow River) had it. So we Face Booked for a while and uploaded some photos etc. We had our first pizza in 50 days of travel. Until now we have been doing fairly well. The Khmer eat a lot of fresh water fish so this was probably the first and last chance to get Salami for a while.

We usually are in bed by 9pm. When it gets dark you risk attack by massed ranks of mosquitoes if you leave the light on and don't have an air tight seal to keep them out. Even then a few get in. After a while every tickle gets a pre-emptive slap just in case. It is probably not the most ecologicaly sound policy but most travellers will probably squash first and ask questions later.

Tomorrow we head 300km to Phnom Phen where Paris meets Indo-China. There is a gag in there about the Bangkok Hilton but I know better than to go there.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Day 2: Sunday 30 Jan 2011 (Heathrow to Tokyo)

We left Heathrow at midday and flew to Tokyo. Simon won the increasingly bitter struggle to drive us to the airport and amazingly Greg came all the way from Shaftesbury to see us off. It is not clear whether this was to wish us well or to make sure we actually left.

Clare still finds it inexplicable that the properties of the aerofoil kept us aloft for twelve hours. At thirty seven she either refuses to believe or is unwilling to understand the science. Our conversations routinely revolve around the improbability of an aluminium tube full of people being successfully propelled over Everest by flaming kerosene.
With the limbless man in the seat behind complaining loudly about the lack of leg room, we felt a bit bad about getting the over wing exit seats. Being next to the galley, we were served the in-flight meal first, even before the Jewish Vegetarian Celiac. Smugness on either count is not an attractive quality but sometimes it is hard to avoid.
Three movies, two meals, seven drinks and four serious attempts at sleep later we were landing at Tokyo Narita. Airports are all the same. The only difference was the overwhelming number of Japanese people and the offerings of the food concessions.
I adjusted to the food quicker than the lack of Western faces. When I say Western, I am not including Australians who seemed to outnumber even the Japanese. Even at passport control, the twang of Western Australia was palpable. By the time we got to the airport exit even the locals were looking a little worried. The Japanese, having a constitutional bar on behaviour falling below the standard of exceptional politeness, would never have actually said so, but you could see it in their inscrutable faces. They knew the game was up and it was with an evident sense of resignation that the station guard ushered us all politely aboard the Express to Tokyo Central.
Even Easy Jet would be embarrassed fly to Narita and call it Tokyo. After ninety minutes on an extremely quick train, we eased into Tokyo Central station precisely on time and I was left with the inescapable impression that Japan is a single mega city. Narita is urban congestion personified and between departure and arrival in the heart of Tokyo, there was an unbroken ribbon of development, as far as the eye could see through the haze. From Tokyo Central we caught the Bullet Train to Nagano, home of the 1998 Winter Olympics. It is not as quick as people say. Its faster and all without enough vibration to induce a ripple on the surface of your drink all the while looking no more threatening than a proctologist's instrument.

From Nagano we caught the bus to Hakuba that deposited us there, weary and slightly travel soiled. There is no snowline between Tokyo and Hakuba. Somehow the rest of Japan was largely snow free but our destination was three metres deep. 40cm fell that night before we arrived and it didn't take telepathy to sense the collective excitement when we arrived at Mount Hakuba Back Packer's Hostel in Echoland even if the manager David, expressed this through the medium of reproach, having ruined his knee a few short weeks into the season.
Clare went in hard when booking this hostel. Not only was it cheap by Hakuba standards but it was cold and a bit smelly with four hairy snow boarders to each eight by six room. I know now that she calculated that if I could take this, I could take anything. I only whimpered a little.

We met up by design with Victoria and Dirk at the very plush Momonoki Hotel and drank saki and ate terryaki. Dirk generously picked up the tab and we rolled home in the early hours. If there were pavements, they were metres beneath the snow.